Winterfest was different this year.
That’s what David Schilling thought anyway.
It’s usually a Smoky Mountaintop experience, as thousands of kids hear “David and Goliath stories” delivered by dynamic speakers, Christian poets, even Flying Wallenda-style acrobats, Schilling said.
But this year seemed “less grandiose,” he said. The sermons were great, though some sounded like they were intended for an older audience. The worship was powerful. But there wasn’t “that larger-than-life wow factor I’ve come to expect.”
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Then, during Sunday morning worship, minister Jeff Walling asked for those who had decided to follow Christ in baptism to stand up and come forward.
And they came — one by one, two by two, in groups of three or more. Soon the area in front of the stage was packed with nearly 200 souls.
As it turns out, “what was missing actually made more room for the Holy Spirit to permeate the experience,” Schilling said.
So far 11 Winterfest participants from his church have been baptized — including two adults who came as chaperones.
Abbey Roberson didn’t stand up at first.
“There was something holding me back,” said the 11-year-old from Hardin Valley. But as Walling spoke, “I looked through my teary eyes, and for a minute I think Jesus was there, reaching out to me, waiting for me to stand. So I did.”
About 200 miles south of Asbury University in Kentucky, where a marathon worship service sparked a revival that made national headlines, about 400 people committed to be baptized — 200 each in two Sunday morning services at Winterfest Gatlinburg. At least 100 more made the same commitment a few weeks earlier during Winterfest Arlington in Texas.
Dudley Chancey, Winterfest’s organizer, was perched above the Gatlinburg Convention Center in the audiovisual booth as the crowds went forward. It was “like a concert,” he said, “except they’re not, you know, doing mosh pits and passing people around.
“This is my 36th year doing Winterfest,” he added, “and I’ve never seen that.”
That is to say, he hadn’t seen that kind of response “without singing 75 verses of ‘Just As I Am,’” said Chancey, professor of youth and family ministry at Oklahoma Christian University.
Charlotte Elliott’s 1835 hymn — which has six verses in the “Songs of the Church” hymnal — has been a standard at gospel meetings for over a century.
“Our history includes revivalism, preachers riding into town on a horse,” said Walling, a longtime minister who now serves as director of the Youth Leadership Initiative at Pepperdine University in California. Traveling evangelists set up tents and preached for weeks at a time about simple, New Testament Christianity and baptism by immersion. Countless churches were birthed in this manner.
In many ways Winterfest, which draws nearly 10,000 participants between its two venues, presents a modern, high-tech, video-driven update of those tent meetings. And although each year brings a strong, emotional plea to embrace the Gospel, “with students, we do want to be careful,” Walling said. “We don’t want them making a purely emotional decision.”
That’s why this year’s Winterfest featured an elaborate, onstage recreation of the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed before his crucifixion, but not a baptistery.
The baptisms happen after the event. Chancey and fellow organizers encourage youth ministers and parents to talk with the students in their group to make sure they understand the lifelong commitment they’re making. Some groups then gather around hotel swimming pools to immerse their new brothers and sisters into Christ. One hotel in Arlington denied a group’s request to use their pool, so church members rented a room with a hot tub. The smiling converts sent a photo to Walling. He’s heard similar stories from the Tennessee event.
“There are holy Jacuzzis all over Gatlinburg,” he said.
Some baptisms happen after the youths return home. In Knoxville, members of the Hardin Valley church waited for their Winterfest contingent to arrive and performed baptisms around 11 p.m. Sunday, Schilling said. In total, about 200 people were there and created “a moment of family celebration.”
A prayer for unity — ‘Chosen’ style
COVID-19 may have played a role in this year’s responses to Walling’s invitation, several youth ministers told The Christian Chronicle. The global pandemic has canceled or severely reduced attendance at large youth events in the past three years. Returning to a full-capacity venue was energizing and may have led to some long-delayed decisions to commit to Christ.
Chancey also changed the format of the penultimate service on Saturday night, based on a format used during Youth in Action rallies he helped organize in the 1970s in Arkansas.
Participants “sang the story of Jesus,” Walling said, “from ‘Joy to the World’ to ‘They bound the hands of Jesus in the garden where he prayed.’” Stephen Maxwell, a minister from Atlanta, Georgia, led worship, backed by a cappella group United Voice Worship.
“Seeing this generation embrace the faith does my heart good,” said Nic Dunbar, a member of United Voice Worship and a minister from Texas. “What I will remember most … is the atmosphere and excitement of young believers who are full of passion and hope in Jesus Christ.”
Instead of a sermon, the youths heard a prayer from Jesus himself, portrayed by Marcus Neely, youth and family minister from Searcy, Ark. Dressed in robes and channeling the accent used by Jonathan Roumie, who portrays Christ on the streaming show “The Chosen,” Neely performed Jesus’ prayer from John 17.
“I pray for all those who will believe in me,” he said, “that they may be one, Father, as you and I are one. … Then the world will know that you have loved them as you have loved me.”
Then Walling offered a brief invitation. “The hour has come,” he said, quoting Jesus’ words at the beginning of the prayer. “This moment is not our moment; it’s yours.”
Evan Flanigan, a church member from Nashville, Tenn., was one of the hundreds who responded to the invitation.
“I had been thinking about it for a while,” the 12-year-old said. It was his first trip to Winterfest. “In that moment I decided I was ready … so I stood up because that had been a truly amazing weekend.”
His dad, Andy, baptized him in a hotel swimming pool that night as his mother, Kathy, watched from Nashville on her phone via FaceTime.
Evan’s two older siblings were baptized at the church building. Kathy Flanigan said she didn’t mind watching remotely as the third of her four children was immersed, along with two of his friends. Two more youths were baptized after they returned to Nashville.
“It has been a long dry spell for us,” Kathy said of the Tusculum church, which has a Sunday attendance of about 300. After years of pandemic and struggle, “it was maybe a little extra special!”
The Chronicle asked Evan if the Saturday night service — including Neely’s performance as Christ, Middle Eastern accent and all — played a role in his decision.
“Actually, I thought that was kind of weird,” he said. “I thought he was Scottish.”
‘A move of the Spirit’ in America?
Winterfest 2023 is over, but the spirit of revival has continued for members of the Maricamp Road Church of Christ in Ocala, Fla., minister John “Beef” Branard said.
He grew up attending Winterfest, and this year he led a group of 15 youths to the Gatlinburg event. He appreciated the call for unity he heard from speakers including David Skidmore, Phil Brookman and Brad Tate. He also loved the Saturday night service.
“If you’re not careful, you can overschedule the Holy Spirit,” he said. “I felt like they did a really good job of just letting that time of worship flow.”
The group returned to Florida just as the 180-member congregation was preparing for a 24-hour prayer service, with members signing up for 15-minute increments. Before that service, Branard preached on prayer, mentioning the struggles and sickness that the congregation had endured in recent years — including the March 20, 2022, death of Jeff Robison, who served as an elder and minister for the church for 35 years.
Moved by the Spirit, Branard asked all those hurting to come forward and receive prayer. And they did.
“We’re a pretty sit-in-the-pew kind of church,” he said. But people came forward in tears, sharing their grief and confessing their sins. “It wasn’t some sensational, crazy charismatic thing. It was just an outpouring.”
He reflected on the events at Asbury, at Winterfest and among the pews of his church.
“I have no doubt that there’s some move of the Spirit going on in America right now,” he said. “I think God has been moving. But I think our eyes are just starting to open.”
This story first appeared in the Christian Chronicle.
Erik Tryggestad is president and CEO of The Christian Chronicle. He has filed stories for the Chronicle from more than 65 nations.